As the manager of the Karina Cultural group in the Kalinago Territory for the past 27 years, Mr. Gerald Langlais’ quest to preserve his cultural heritage continues year after year. He is Kalinago, son of two parents who were both Kalinago, and he also holds the prestigious position of being the medicine man of the Territory. The cultural group was formed in 1993 by Gerald and his wife in an attempt to preserve the traditions of their people.
Generations-old stories are told through song and dance, reflecting the Kalinago people’s spiritual connection with nature, all expertly presented. Within their mesmerizing moves, the dancers and singers become story-tellers, paying homage to legends, be it snake, bird or the stars. Myths are revisited through the beating of the drums as they reach out to the spirits of their ancestors.
The Kalinago’s symbolisms are many. Rain and sun are significant, so too are animals like the bat, which is symbolic of dry season, and frogs that of the wet season.
Frogs are also a symbol of fertility. As the Karina Cultural Group creatively dramatize their ancestral heritage, to those who are familiar with their traditions, interpretations are easy, but to others, many questions will inevitably follow.
One of the ancient legends depicted in song and dance is that of the snake king. It is said that a gigantic boa constrictor, Bakwa, which possessed special powers, swam up to Dominica from South America. At that time, the earth was still soft and so it climbed over the Manganeeney Ridge, carved out portions of the rock and slid into a cave in the Dominican mountain. Their forefathers believed it lived in that giant underground cave and had the power to grant wishes. Before a request was made of the snake king, one would have to fast for several days to purify the body. They will then approach the cave with offerings of tobacco, cassava bread and a ceremonial drink called “Ouicou”. After accepting the offering, the snake would temporarily transform into a human, and grant them their wish. Today, a snake-like rock, L’escalier Tete Chien remains, indicative of where Bakwa emerged from the water and etched a path onto the shore en route to the mountains.
These and many other enchanting stories are part of the ancestral heritage of the Kalinago people who came to Dominica from South America in the 14th century, and the Karina Cultural Group proudly shares this story and many more. Consisting of 20 members, the group has been the recipient of many awards over the years. In November 2020, they were honoured to receive the Golden Drum Award which is the highest cultural award granted in Dominica.
In addition to performing at Dominica’s World Creole Festival and other cultural events around the island, the group have participated in cultural exchanges with other indigenous people in the Caribbean. They also conduct workshops teaching participants inside and outside of the Kalinago community the art of craft-making which is an integral part of their culture. Kalinago children are taught their native language and although non-Kalinago people can learn about Kalinago culture, some of their traditions and secrets are reserved for their people only and are therefore not shared with outsiders.
Some of these secrets are utilized by Gerald in his other role as ‘medicine man’ within the Territory. He is a treasure trove of knowledge about traditional herbs, the health uses of tree barks, the spirituality of river water, nature’s innate ability to heal, dispelling of bad spells and provision of cleansing baths. His wisdom is reserved specifically for his people as taught by his ancestors. Gerald is sought after for thanksgiving ceremonies and will participate in the chants, dances, singing and drumming as offerings are made to the great spirit and to mother earth.
If you are fortunate to meet Gerald while visiting the Kalinago Territory, you are guaranteed to be enthralled by the stories he will tell. He is Kalinago and the culture and history of his ancestors live on through him and the Karina Cultural group he confidently leads.